Between 20 and 30 protesters were forcibly removed from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's lecture at the University of Chicago last week for disrupting the speech with accusations of war crimes and wishes for his death.
Colm O'Muircheartaigh, dean of the Harris School for Public Policy at the University of Chicago, was ignored as he admonished protesters to find a more civil way of making their opinions known.
Due to constant interruptions, the speech, part of the annual King Abdullah II Leadership Lecture Series, lasted an hour-and-a-half instead of its scheduled 20 minutes. While no Northwestern students were reportedly thrown out of the speech, several NU students were present among the protesters. Their presence was reported by the U of C weekly paper, the Chicago Maroon, as well as other news outlets.
"Olmert went up there and tried to talk, and people just snapped on him," said Yusuf Salah, a Weinberg senior who attended the protest. "There was anger, especially on the side of the Palestinian supporters. (Some) were very composed and articulate. (Others) were shouting, 'You're a war criminal! Shame on you for Gaza! You shouldn't be here!'"
Olmert was the prime minister of Israel from 2006 to early 2009, when he resigned amid accusations of corruption, according to the New York Times. Indicted on three charges of corruption on Aug. 31 of this year, Olmert waged a month-long war in Lebanon in 2006, which was followed by a war in Gaza in January 2009 known as Operation Cast Lead.
"My problem is not with his being controversial," said Salah, an executive board member of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. "This is a leadership lecture. (He is) a person who is by all accounts ... an absolutely terrible example of leadership ... You can't honor someone who has done such a bad job as Olmert. Doesn't matter if he's Israeli, Palestinian or Costa Rican."
Both the Israeli government and Palestinian militants face charges of war crimes from the Gaza offensive, written by a U.N. court of inquiry headed by Judge Richard Goldstone. If the charges hold, the parties could be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.
"Olmert was prime minister when Israeli Defense Forces killed close to 1400 Palestinians," said Dana Shabeeb, Weinberg senior and a member of the Muslim-cultural Students Association. "Bringing someone like that is not constructive, and the reaction showed that. I think that people should want to know why America is so staunchly and blindly pro-Israeli."
While no cameras were allowed in the event, a pro-Palestinian Web site called the Electronic Intifada snuck in a camera and posted a video of the heckling on YouTube and their own site. Web site founder Ali Abunimah can be seen in the video yelling, "War crimes are not free expression!" The video continues to show Abunimah being removed from the audience. Abunimah coordinated the attendance of protesters from neighboring universities, Shabeeb said.
"A university cannot allow for a political group to disrupt and to ignore (the dean)," said Prof. Elie Rekhess, the visiting Crown chair in Middle East Studies for the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies. "This was well-planned, mind you. They had planted protestors in the midst of the audience to create more of a disruption."
This is not the first instance in which NU students have been linked with controversial protests both for and against Israel. When Students for Justice in Palestine brought the Jewish, pro-Palestinian speaker Norman Finkelstein to campus in February 2009, groups such as Students for Israel and Students Helping to Organize Awareness of the Holocaust protested the event.
"Finkelstein is an anti-Semitic propagandist masquerading as a scholar on the conflict," wrote the group's organizers in a guest column printed in the DAILY a day before his speech.
Yet the tone at each event was distinctly different.
Finkelstein "a very disputed person and highly critical of Israel, was invited to speak and spoke. The audience was well-behaved," Rekhess said.
Rekhess also said during the Gaza siege, Israeli forces had "no alternative but to hit these areas knowing that civilians will be hurt," since Hamas had hidden their headquarters in the midst of hospitals and schools.
"I think that it's a flaw in expectations to hold Israel to the same standard as Hamas — one is a country, one is a terrorist organization," said Wildcats for Israel Co-President Nathan Enfield, a Weinberg sophomore. "I don't think that protesting (Olmert) for Operation Cast Lead is related or appropriate."
According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, 1,417 people were killed during the offensive, including 926 civilians. In contrast, Israel said 1,166 people were killed, only 295 of which were non-combatants.
"Where I look at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in general I see an injustice. You feel like you need to fix something. You gravitate towards these events," Salah said.